Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interview with D.T. Max, author of the infinitely interesting bio of David Foster Wallace

One of the many freelance hats I wear is as an editor for Baristanet, a cool local news/magazine website. Local in this case geographically means coverage is centered on Montclair, New Jersey (a neighboring community to mine). Sometimes people refer to Montclair as "writerville" (and sometimes "Brooklyn West," but that's another story).  If you tried to count how many writers, editors, journalists, poets, broadcasters, reporters, publishing executives, and other media and literary types live in Montclair, you'd quit long before you even got through those who've made it onto the New York Times bestseller list.

Which brings me to how lucky I am to occasionally assign myself an interview with a local resident who is making literary news. This week, I sat down for a lunchtime chat with D.T. Max, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, a current NYT bestseller.  

First, of course, I read Max's book, a thoroughly researched, compassionate and deeply thoughtful account of Wallace's literary and personal life. Wow.

I had previously been more familiar with Wallace's nonfiction, his long magazine essays, and had been too intimidated to plunge into his most significant novel, Infinite Jest. Now, I think I must tackle those 1200 pages.

You can read my Q&A with Daniel Max over at Baristanet. 

If you are anywhere near writerville (that is, in Northern NJ), think about stopping in at the Montclair Library cafe tonight to hear Max read and discuss the book and DFW.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Some days, the news is all good, so what could be bad about that?

I love seeing good news from writers I know personally, those I would like to get to know, from authors I admire, publishers I respect, from literary publications I enjoy, and the writing organizations I belong to or follow for the good work they do.  Usually this comes in the form of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn updates, as well as emails, newsletters and blog posts. 

In a few minutes (often a few too many minutes!) I get all the up-to-date info on who just signed with an agent, whose manuscript just sold to which publisher, what literary award was earned, which grant received.  It all scrolls by my eyes, all that great good news I'm happy to hear – whose essay is now live at what site, which bookstore is hosting what author, which writer just got hired by what college to teach which genre, whose book made a coveted list.

When I can, when I have a minute or it's news I've been hoping for on someone else's behalf, I click Like, or write a quick Kudos! comment, or just nod and smile and think, that's great.

And then there are the other days. The ones when I just don't want to know. I don't.  The days when I nearly sneer at the screen and think, sarcastically, yeah terrific. Days when the last thing I want to hear about is another writer (who is not me) accomplishing something, getting awarded something, getting published someplace, landing an agent, book deal, teaching job, residency.

It's not that I want writers to stop tooting their horns. We all need to, once in a while. Plus, it's a career imperative, bound up in platform building, book promotion, student recruitment, reader engagement, and editorial relationships.

And of course I do this myself too, and yet even while doing so, I'm aware of a double edged reality; that there are writers out there – in many cases who may in fact even like me or wish me good things – who on a given day just don't want to hear about anyone else's good fortune. 

Because maybe that day for them (as it is for me some days), the manuscript-in-progress is being an uncooperative bitch, or the machinery of freelancing is slow and cruel and broken, or the email inbox is filling with too much rejection for a single day.  Or maybe none of that happens, but even so, it's still too much to contemplate all the good things happening everywhere else to everyone else.

On those kind of days, I avoid social media, open emails carefully if at all, and take no meandering walks around the internet. Those days, I kind of long for the days when good news only arrived once a month between magazine covers which you could then either read in the bathtub or stack on a shelf, or at a monthly networking meeting when you could blunt the impact with a glass of wine, or in a chatty phone call which you could field while cooking or painting your nails.

I get over it quickly, and fairly soon I am back to being happy for everyone, retweeting and sharing their good news. Still, I think my father was onto something when he used to say, in the days before cell phones and email and CNN, "No news is good news."  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, September 14, 2012 Edition

> Terrific interview with Katherine Boo, author of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, over at Guernica, about reporting on, and observing poverty.

> For its next Six Word Memoir book project, SMITH magazine, wants six word submissions combined with artwork from students (of any age).

> If you've never submitted work to a literary journal before and are wondering about the upside of doing so, this post at Review Review may be instructive.

> Review Review (yes, that's the name!), also brings us this list of upcoming book festivals.

> Harper Voyager, the "global science fiction and fantasy imprint of HarperCollins" will read un-agented manuscripts from U.S., UK and Australian writers, October 1 - 14.

> Advance planners out there who will attend the AWP Conference  (March 2013 in Boston), a list of readings, seminars, panel discussions, presentations, and pedagogy events has now been compiled and is ready for your perusal.

> Finally, for fun:  I'll go with "K is for Krispy Kreme".  What's your favorite over at The Awl's "Writer Foods from A to Z"?

Have a great weekend.

Monday, September 10, 2012

For me, September is always about getting back to school. Or something.

Is it me?  That is, is it only people like me – writers who once loved school – who think of September as the beginning of ...everything?  A time when, just down the road ahead -- yes you can almost see it from here – there are so many new books and ideas ahead, and best of all, plenty of time alone with a pen and a blank notebook page?

People joke about the "smell of pencils," but I really do get disproportionately happy when I catch the odor of a freshly sharpened pencil, the pages of a new notebook or – even better – a just-cracked-open book.  (Yes, I'm strange; my husband says I can smell things other people never can, but that's another story.)

For the years between college graduation and when my first child started school, September had a twinge of sadness that I wasn't going "back to" anything. So I signed up for adult education (photography, antiques, cooking, gardening, computer software programs I never mastered), took sport or fitness classes (yoga, tennis), and occasionally even agreed to teach something I was moderately good at (horseback riding, publicity, garage sale secrets – don't ask).

Then suddenly I had school-age children and drove them both nearly insane every August (okay, I started in June), with overly enthusiastic school supply shopping excursions; right up until last month when my soon-to-be-college-freshman son nearly left me in the aisle at Staples.

Six years ago, I got to "go back" to school for real (it was July not September, but let's not quibble) for an MFA in creative writing and though I swore the first semester I would NEVER teach, a few months after graduation I found I kind of loved teaching. 
Now I get a bit of that old September feeling several times a year when a new class starts, but always, I have a giddily predictable response to any class that begins in September, and I noticed that the writers who sign up often feel that way too. There's something different about classes that get underway just after Labor Day.

Which brings me to today. A new class starts and that means I have a fresh notebook on my desk, and one of my favorite pens (Uniball Vision Needle Point Fine – waterproof and fade proof, in purple). The class is online so I suppose I don't technically need a new notebook and pen. But I always do this; I label the notebook (this one says Boot Camp Fall 2012), and clip the pen to the spiral rings. 

I use it for tracking student work, for ideas I'll use for discussion on the online class discussion board, to jot down names of books students mention, sketch thoughts on how to tweak the class next time and – this is the part about me being a writer who is in learning mode, as well as a every single writer in the class – the notebook is the place where (every time, even if I've run the class before, but especially in September) I work on some of the same assignments I'm doling out each week.

I like how the notebook occupies a physical place on my desk and what it represents:  That I'm a writing student too.  That we all are, always.

Now, go buy a notebook.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, September 7, 2012 Edition

Interesting links from around the web of interest to writers. Some have been around in my "to be posted" file for a little while now, others are from this week's crop. Enjoy.

> A promising addition to the nonfiction writer's craft shelf is the recently-released Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore, with advice from an ace group of 26 CNF experts. You can skim the table of contents

> A literary journal editor on how and why she "tears apart" a manuscript

> I wasn't aware that the British-based journal Granta is already published in six other languages, and will add a seventh, Chinese, soon. This article has a bunch of other interesting facts about the publication, too.

> Speaking of Granta, it's one of 12 picks on Flavorwire's list of the most beautiful literary magazines online. 

> I love the no-B.S. approach, and so I like me an agent's blog that tells it straight, even if that agent self-identifies as a shark. 

> Michael Steinberg discusses the Role of Research in Personal Narratives, including this aha moment: "...the narrator’s personal (coming-of-age) story couldn’t stand alone without the book degenerating into a self-centered, here’s-what-happened narrative. The memoir, I realized, needed a larger context. It was necessary then, to weave the personal story and the research together so that, just as it is in real life, the one is inextricably linked with the other. As it turns out, the research not only was necessary, but it also opened up previously unplanned opportunities for deepening and extending the narrative."

> Gretchen Rubin, whose new book, Happy at Home is just out, reminded me with this quote, that one of the reasons I enjoy the writing world so much is that I am disproportionately in love with things like spelling, paper, type fonts, and proofreading, among other things. “The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves.” -Logan Pearsall Smith

> Finally, I hope you will read all of Verlyn Klinkenborg's excellent essay Where Do Sentences Come From?, at the New York Times' Opinionator blog, but especially this, about the reason to write and then release sentences you construct in your head: "The more you do this, the easier it will be to remember the sentences you want to keep. Better yet, you’ll know that you can replace any sentence you lose with one that’s just as good. There’s a good reason for doing this all in your head. You’re learning to be comfortable in that dark, cavernous place. It’s not so frightening. There’s language there, and you’re learning to play with it on your own without the need to snatch at words and phrases for an assignment. And here’s another good reason. A sentence you don’t write down is a sentence you feel free to change. Inscribe it, and you’re chained to it for life. That, at least, is how many writers act. A written sentence possesses a crippling inertia."

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ten Things Every Writing Routine Should Probably Have

Yesterday I discussed my beef with the standard advice that one must write every day (namely, that it just doesn't work for every writer!), and concluded with my opinion that a much more realistic goal is for each individual writer to establish a customized regular writing routine which works for that writer

I said there were 10 things I believe you should consider when establishing a regular writing routine.  Here are the 10 criteria I believe a successful writing routine ought to have:

1. Regularity & Duration.
For some, that will mean  a regularity of several days a week, if you have the ability to do so given your life situation, and a duration more than 15 minutes, but not more than a few hours, per session. For others, that may mean 10 writing sessions per month of a specific duration, but scheduled less predictably.  

2. Ease. 
A regular writing routine must not be a burden to maintain in the normal course of your life, or guess what? You won't keep to it, you won't write. When I say "ease" I don't mean make it so easy on yourself that there is no sense of urgency or commitment; I mean that if you make your writing schedule/routine so complicated and difficult, the odds of carrying it out are slim. Don't fight human nature.

3. Flexibility.
Yes, I think you ought to schedule in your writing time, just the way you do a doctor's appointment or the dog's walk. But a writing routine also needs to be realistic and flexible enough that when life's usual deviations erupt, the routine can be tweaked and  somehow maintained, not wither away.

4. Rigor.
Your routine must make a disciplined demand on you; in other words, you work (write) when the schedule says so. Sometimes that may be at an inconvenient time which may be the only time you can given life's circumstances; if you're a night person, that may mean accepting the rigor of needing to write in the morning because that's what your current life situation requires.

5. Enjoyment.
The time/place/action of the routine itself, AS WELL AS the work, should be enjoyable. You enjoy doing it, being there, carrying out the actual physical and mental acts of writing. Why bother if it's drudgery?  Remember, you write to enhance your life, right? (This brings up the need to deal with any "shoulds" in your head -- I should write more fiction, finish that essay, get back to that script...examine those shoulds and see if they match your real writing desires.)

6. Scene-Setters. 
A beverage of choice, the right background music, a non-cranky computer, lovely pens, comfortable chair, good light, the dog at your feet – whatever helps. And yet, let's not skip a writing session because your chair is lumpy, the CD is scratched, you're out of hot chocolate.

7. Solitude / Setting.
A physical place, and a specific time, when and where distractions are minimized; not always possible of course and some writers don't find this important at all. If you've learned to write in the stands of your kid's hockey game, terrific.

8. Writing goal(s) and wants.
Know why you are in that writing chair in the first place. This may take the form of something very specific – new chapters in a book manuscript, three essays on particular topics, the next draft of a short story; or it may be less exacting but still goal- and want-directed:  improving dialogue by trying some new techniques; fiddling with a new batch of poem ideas; turning a serious essay into a humorous one. In other words, think about what you want to happen, and what you are planning to have happen, when you next plan to write; this way, you won't be worrying over the prospect of an upcoming scheduled writing session and not knowing how you'll fill the time.

9. Measurement.
A way to know you were there, that you wrote and something came of it. This could be a simple tally mark on a wall calendar, or mentally or physically taking note of that session's page or word count, or just taking a few minutes to reflect on what you did (sketched out a new scene, revised a pesky passage).  I'm often surprised at writers who have no sense of tracking what they actually get done while at the keyboard/notebook. 

10. Accountability.
This is related to measurement, but introduces the element of being accountable to someone other than yourself.  The idea is to recruit someone, or develop/participate in some system, that forces you to say to the outside world, I'm a writer at work. This could be as easy as asking a writing buddy to expect a quick email from you on writing days: "Wrote today," or signing up for one of the many online systems that help users track progress on any task.

Did I forget anything?  What do you think also has to be part of a successful writing routine? 

The above is adapted from Week One of  *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp: Reclaim Your Writing Life).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What about the advice that writers must write every day? I say, no. And, maybe. And sometimes, yes.

There is so much cookie-cutter advice about writing, and in particular, about the importance of regular writing routines, that I often wonder how less experienced writers, newer writers, writers with day jobs, or writers have a more well-developed worry-meter than I, ever get through a day without being convinced they are doing everything all wrong.

Don't get me wrong: I am a big believer in an established writing routine, in writing regularly, in integrating writing into the rest of one's life so fully that being awake and writing more or less co-exist.

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Look, there are times when I do just exactly this, namely when I have something due on a certain date and know I will need to steadily produce in measured increments so I will not go entirely crazy with anxiety over whether or not I will finish on time. 

But in general, I don't hold myself to an arbitrary write-every-single-day-or-else standard.  And neither do dozens of other writers I know, even those who have published many books, churn out essays by the boatload, poems by the hundreds.  Like them, depending on a number of factors – deadlines, research needs, other pressing projects or jobs (paid and not), family obligations, health -- there are periods when I do write every day and then there are times when I do not. There are even times when  – horrors! -- I don't write a blessed thing for a week. Or two. Or more. During that time, do I forget how to write?  Get kicked out of the Writing Club? Drop every writing idea I ever had?  Become someone who is not a *real* writer?

Of course not.

Typically during that time, I am still a real writer. How do I know? I know because I see myself doing other things that support and nurture me as a writer, sometimes intentionally, sometimes without even meaning to.  I read. I make lists of writing ideas. I connect with other writers. I read. I contemplate what has accumulated in my writer's notebook. I seek writing assignments and jobs. I read. I teach/mentor others. I study writing-related stuff – song lyrics, for example. I read. I edit manuscripts. I do research for things I plan to write, or am in the middle of writing.  Maybe I watch films, go to a museum, but mostly I read a lot.  Did I mention I read?

Maybe I'm in a not-writing phase because I'm mentally exhausted after finishing a big project. Maybe I'm physically worn out, battling a cold or aches and pain. Maybe someone in my family needs me, maybe even for days or weeks at a time, which cuts into, or possibly eliminates writing time. Life happens, and being present in life sometimes requires that we don't write (at least not in notebooks or on screen); in the words of one of my mentors, poet/memoirist/MFA professor Richard Hoffman:  "Life first, writing second."

The point is, I'm not a slave to some one-size-fits-all routine, and despite what you may have heard or assumed, neither are hundreds of other writers far more successful than I. And you don't have to be either

What you do need to do is find a routine that suits YOU.

If you are NOT writing at all but want to be, if you are the type to squirm out of routines, if you have an ambitious writing goal and/or firm deadline (real or self-imposed), if you have gobs of flexibility in your schedule -- do I think a commitment to daily writing is a good way to get and stay on track? YES. YES. Of course, YES.

Yet that may not be practical given your life situation. Further, I think that holding everyone to some arbitrary standard of needing to write every day only fosters anxiety and guilt. If you think you must write every day, but you cannot actually do so, then you will only end up feeling guilty the next time you actually do sit to write. Who needs that?  Who wants to begin a writing session feeling as if there is so much lost ground to make up, you are already losing?

Who needs to write every day?  Only someone who feels they can, who wants to, who needs to (for deadline or other reasons), and for whom that kind of schedule is workable, enjoyable, nurturing, and possible.  

Everyone else needs another routine instead, one that works for that writer alone. 

Does writing every day help?  Of course. Writing is a mental muscular activity and one does strengthen it by frequent use. So writing every day is good. But so is writing every other day. Or three days a week. Or for six days in a row and then four days off.  Or… It depends on your circumstances, goals, abilities, and especially time constraints and life situation.

Does that mean, hey, since you've got a tough schedule it's okay to write for 10 minutes on alternate Sunday mornings and call that a routine that fits, and assume you will properly develop as a writer?

No !

The idea is to develop an individualized writing routine that works for YOU – that supports YOUR life situation, YOUR writing goals, YOUR capabilities and skill level, YOUR desires.

Tomorrow, I will post what I consider to be the 10 most important criteria for creating a writing routine that works for you.

The above is adapted from Week One of *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp:Reclaim Your Writing Life.